Garbage emerged in the mid-'90s with a sound that was simultaneously as current as it was classic and forward thinking. Melding classic pop and rock with samples and futuristic dance beats, they had found the compound that somehow made processed music organic. This connected the more synthesizer-driven bands (and the era of the remix) to more traditional rock acts like the Beach Boys, the Clash, and the Pretenders, all of whom the band directly referenced.
And it didn't hurt that Garbage also had Shirley Manson at the microphone, whom I would elect as the single greatest female lead singer to ever front a rock group. Smart, sexy, wickedly funny, Manson was dangerous enough to scare you just a little bit, but normal enough that guys would want to go drinking with her and self-assured in a way that made girls want to like her. And we all wanted to be her, regardless of gender. (Given that androgyny was a recurrent lyrical theme in Garbage's songs, this was probably an intended effect.)
Having been inactive for several years--and being one of those bands that continually seems to break up between albums--Garbage has finally released a greatest hits CD and this companion DVD, Absolute Garbage, assembling sixteen tracks from their four albums. The presentation here is two-fold: a collection of musical videos and a new 70-minute documentary, Thanks for Your Uhhh, Support.
The first half is long overdue. Garbage garnered a lot of attention as one of the last pure MTV bands, pre-TRL and Carson Daly, who saw music videos as more than a promotional tool but as an extension of their art. This put them in league with similar art-house acts like Radiohead and Bjork. Any time one of them released a new clip, it was an event. For Garbage, from video to video, they developed an increasingly sophisticated visual language that made their work as much about image and personality as about music. Alleged rock purists might call that shallow, but really, it's about as close to the original concept as you can get. I mean, you've heard of the Beatles right? You've seen what they did, yeah?
Garbage videos can be broken down into three categories: performance, pop-art poems, and epic movies. Their debut, "Vow," set up the performance element. Shot by Samuel Bayer, known best for his work with Nirvana (whom Garbage's drummer Butch Vig had also produced), it's a sparse runthrough of the song on a ramshackle set, using scratchy films and TV monitors to achieve that trademark Bayer look. Ironically, the director would rip himself off when he shot "Stupid Girl," one of the band's most popular videos, but one of their least compelling--especially compared to the stalking, feral, fun-house mirror Shirley that emerges three videos later in Matthew Rolston's "I Think I'm Paranoid." Throughout this disc, Garbage will continually go back to the performance element, including straight-up concert clips like "When I Grow Up" (Shirley out-Gwens the No Doubt-era Stefani but the canned audience cheering is unnecessary) and the digital-age "Shut Your Mouth."
By the time the band got to their third album and the Joseph Kahn helmed "Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go)," they were ready to tear apart the performance concept. Apparently seeing the emptiness in the pantomime, they appear as bodiless rockers, just clothes and instruments attached to empty shells. Their real bodies are only visible on TV screens, quite possibly a knock at Bayer and his image-within-an-image use of monitors in the early clips. In a perverse joke, the Manson stand-in lifts her skirt and eventually discards her dress altogether, suddenly just a pair of dancing gloves and boots. For the audience who had always lusted after her, they could finally see her naked...only not. Taking it further, the video ends with invisible Shirley peeing while standing up, once more messing with gender roles. (Oddly, the actual song "Androgyny" is missing from both this and the CD version. Has the band disowned it? Also missing is the little-seen video for "Sex is Not the Enemy.") "Cherry Lips" was not the only time Manson played with the notion of the image of the female rock singer. In "Why Do You Love Me" she dresses in front of a giant blow-up of Debbie Harry, her own vision of on-stage cool.
"Cherry Lips" is not just the apex of the performance side, but it crosses over to the pop art side. These are the hyperactive, image-heavy videos that are almost like art installations or cinematic tone poems. Samuel Bayer's "Only Happy When It Rains" or the Andrea Giacobbe directed "Push It" are like tours of bizarre museums, seemingly random images linked up to the music. You'd almost think that Richard Kelly had a loop of these taped off of "120 Minutes" that he wore thin while writing Donnie Darko. Not all of this type of video is as out there as the two main examples. Stephane Sednaoui's "Queer" is pretty straightforward in its weirdness (and if you didn't completely fall under Manson's spell in that final shot of her leaning into the camera, you may want to check your pulse), as is the sexy-nurse imagery in "Bleed Like Me." Likewise, the relative calm of "Milk" and "You Look So Fine" matches the quietness of the songs, using a colorful, abstract landscape more than surreal characters.
The final category was only really explored twice. One is an obvious choice for an epic movie, the band's clip for their James Bond theme, "The World is Not Enough." The other is more iconic, the pre-Sky Captain aerial battle, "Special." Directed by Dawn Shadforth, this high-concept explosion of special effects takes the lover's battle of the song and makes it real, Manson engaging in a sci-fi dogfight with her bandmates while singing about her disappointment in her romantic mate. It's an unforgettable synthesis of image and music, the whole thing music videos are supposed to be about.
Coming in just under an hour, the video portion of Absolute Garbage impresses in that this string of short films is easily as artful and successful as the sixteen pop singles they are meant to represent. Given how fast and how easily so many bands of the same era faded, Garbage proved they were the real deal by beating the system and sticking around.
The full song list:
3) Only Happy When It Rains
4) Stupid Girl
6) Push It
7) I Think I'm Paranoid
9) When I Grow Up
10) You Look So Fine
11) The World is Not Enough
12) Cherry Lips (Go Baby Go)
14) Shut Your Mouth
15) Why Do You Love Me
16) Bleed Like Me
The second half of the Absolute Garbage program is the all-new retrospective documentary Thanks for Your Uhhh, Support. (Or, I assume it's new. It's very heavily inclined toward 2005 and the Bleed Like Me era, so it might have been put together in the midst of that. There is no mention of this package or of the new song recorded for it, "Tell Me Where It Hurts.")
This program is not anything innovative as far as musical documentaries go, but it's crafted with great skill using a variety of sources. It mixes together home movie footage from the band, live tracks, and news clips to tell the Garbage story, weaving the songs in and out of the narrative. Particularly well done is the way that various audio/video sources of the same song will be spliced together to create one seamless performance. So, for example, "Only Happy When It Rains" may start with in-studio footage of Shirley Manson singing the song, jump from a line of that to the follow-up line in the video, then a bit of impromptu rehearsal footage, and then something from a live concert. (It's never quite that involved, but that about sums it up.) In some cases, we also see clips from some of the lost videos, including "Androgyny," the recalled concept video for "When I Grow Up," and an animated "Shut Your Mouth." (No sign of "Run Baby Run," another single left off the compilation.)
For Garbage fans, this is naturally something we're going to gobble up, relishing in the early story of the three production partners from Wisconsin finding their wild child Scottish singer, and then on into success and how the band stayed true to their ethos even in rocky times. Though there are standard tropes to the story, it should still have appeal for more than the already converted, since the personalities involved are charismatic enough, and generally nice enough, that these folks are worth watching.
Some of the music videos on Absolute Garbage are widescreen and letterboxed, but most of them are full screen. They all look fantastic. The impulse could have been just to dump them onto DVD with no real effort, but all the clips look sharp. No real edge enhancement, clean pictures, bright colors.
The videos can be played either all in a row, with or without the documentary amended on the end, one at a time, or you can set them to random and let your DVD player decide the order.
No massively fancy sound mix, but the audio is clear and the music comes through without distortion, even when you crank it up.
None, just a short booklet with photos and a cardboard slipcover. I was hoping there'd be some live clips or other hidden extras, but I haven't found any.
Highly Recommended. I'm a big Garbage fan, so I was pretty much sold on this before it was loaded up. I've always loved their videos and have been waiting a long time for a good compilation. The band gave as much care to their visual image as they did the music, and as a result, their best clips here are still compelling and innovative even after as much as a decade. The new documentary put together with this is not only an excellent story, but it also serves to remind us what a special combination these four people were and what a great band Garbage was. Let's hope we can get an Absolute Garbage, vol. 2 come 2017!
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.